Daly v. General Motors Corp.

Citation20 Cal.3d 725,144 Cal.Rptr. 380
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Decision Date16 March 1978
Parties, 575 P.2d 1162 Michael Sean DALY, a minor, etc., et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION et al., Defendants and Respondents. L.A. 30687
[575 P.2d 1164] Lawrence J. Moreno, Beverly Hills, for plaintiffs and appellants

Robert E. Cartwright, San Francisco, Edward I. Pollock, Los Angeles, Leroy Hersh, David B. Baum, San Francisco, Stephen I. Zetterberg, Claremont, Robert G. Beloud, Ned Good, Los Angeles, Arne Werchick, San Francisco, Sanford M. Gage, Beverly Hills, Leonard Sacks, Encino, and Joseph Posner, Los Angeles, as amici curiae on behalf of plaintiffs and appellants.

Grace, Neumeyer & Otto, Eugene R. Grace, Richard A. Neumeyer, Arthur Paul Berg, Los Angeles, Frazer F. Hilder, San Francisco, and Gerald J. Gannon, Detroit, Mich., for defendants and respondents.

Acret & Perrochet, Los Angeles, Archbald, Zelezny & Spray, Santa Barbara, Brill, Hunt, De Buys & Burby, Los Angeles, Carroll, Burdick & McDonough, J. D. Burdick, San Francisco, Chase, Rotchford, Drukker & Bogust, Cummins, White & Breidenbach, Dryden, Harrington & Swartz, Stephen J. Grogan, Hillsinger & Costanzo, John J. Costanzo, Los Angeles, Holt, Rhodes & Hollywood, San Diego, Lynberg & Mills, Morgan, Wenzel & McNicholas, Murchison & Cumming, Los Angeles, Ruston, Nance, McCormick & Di Caro, San Diego, Schell & Delamer, Shield & Smith, Theodore P. Shield, Los Angeles, and Wilson, Borrer & Dunn, San Bernardino, as amici curiae on behalf of defendants and respondents.

RICHARDSON, Justice.

The most important of several problems which we consider is whether the principles of comparative negligence expressed by us in Li v. Yellow Cab Co. (1975) 13 Cal.3d 804, 119 Cal.Rptr. 858, 532 P.2d 1226, apply to actions founded on strict products liability. We will conclude that they do. We also inquire whether evidence of "compensating" safety devices installed in a motor vehicle by its manufacturer is admissible to offset alleged design deficiencies, and whether, under the particular facts herein, evidence of a driver's claimed intoxication or of his asserted failure to use his vehicle's safety equipment may be considered. While agreeing that evidence of compensating design characteristics is admissible, we will further determine that under the circumstances herein prejudicial error requiring reversal occurred upon the admission of evidence of the decedent's alleged intoxication and failure to use safety devices in his vehicle.

THE FACTS AND THE TRIAL

Although there were no eyewitnesses, the parties agree, generally, on the reconstruction of the accident in question. In the early hours of October 31, 1970, decedent Kirk Daly, a 36-year-old attorney, was driving his Opel southbound on the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles. The vehicle, while travelling at a speed of 50-70 miles per hour, collided with and damaged 50 feet of metal divider fence. After the initial impact between the left side of the vehicle and the fence the Opel spun counterclockwise, the driver's door was thrown open, and Daly was forcibly ejected from the car and sustained fatal head injuries. It was equally undisputed that had the deceased remained in the Opel his injuries, in all probability, would have been relatively minor.

Plaintiffs, who are decedent's widow and three surviving minor children, sued General Motors Corporation, Boulevard Buick, Underwriter's Auto Leasing, and Alco Leasing Company, the successive links in the Opel's manufacturing and distribution chain. The sole theory of plaintiffs' complaint was strict liability for damages allegedly caused by a defective product, namely, an improperly designed door latch claimed to have been activated by the impact. It was further asserted that, but for the faulty latch, decedent would have been restrained in the vehicle and, although perhaps injured, would not have been killed. Thus, the case involves a so-called "second collision" in which the "defect" did not contribute to the original impact, but only to the "enhancement" of injury.

At trial the jury heard conflicting expert versions as to the functioning of the latch mechanism during the accident. Plaintiffs' principal witness testified that the Opel's door was caused to open when the latch button on the exterior handle of the driver's door was forcibly depressed by some protruding portion of the divider fence. It was his opinion that the exposed push button on the door constituted a design "defect" which caused injuries greatly in excess of those which Daly would otherwise have sustained. Plaintiffs also introduced evidence that other vehicular door latch designs used in production models of the same and prior years afforded substantially greater protection. Defendants' experts countered with their opinions that the force of the impact was sufficiently strong that it would have caused the door to open resulting in Daly's death even if the Opel had been equipped with door latches of the alternative designs suggested by plaintiffs.

Over plaintiffs' objections, defendants were permitted to introduce evidence indicating that: (1) the Opel was equipped with a seat belt-shoulder harness system, and a door lock, either of which if used, it was contended, would have prevented Daly's ejection from the vehicle; (2) Daly used neither the harness system nor the lock; (3) the 1970 Opel owner's manual contained warnings that seat belts should be worn and doors locked when the car was in motion for "accident security"; and (4) Daly was intoxicated at the time of collision, which evidence the jury was advised was admitted for the limited purpose of determining whether decedent had used the vehicle's safety equipment. After relatively brief deliberations the jury returned a verdict favoring all defendants, and plaintiffs appeal from the ensuing adverse judgment.

STRICT PRODUCTS LIABILITY AND COMPARATIVE FAULT

In response to plaintiffs' assertion that the "intoxication-nonuse" evidence was improperly admitted, defendants contend that the deceased's own conduct contributed to his death. Because plaintiffs' case rests upon strict products liability based on improper design of the door latch and because defendants assert a failure in decedent's conduct, namely, his alleged intoxication and nonuse of safety equipment, without which the accident and ensuing death would not have occurred, there is thereby posed the overriding issue in the case, should comparative principles apply in strict products liability actions?

It may be useful to refer briefly to certain highlights in the historical development of the two principles strict and comparative liability. Tort law has evolved from a legal obligation initially imposed without "fault," to recovery which, generally, was based on blameworthiness in a moral sense. For reasons of social policy and because of the unusual nature of defendants' acts, liability without fault continued to be prescribed in a certain restricted area, for example, upon keepers of wild animals, or those who handled explosives or other dangerous substances, or who engaged in ultrahazardous activities. Simultaneously, and more particularly, those who were injured in the use of personal property were permitted recovery on a contract theory if they were the purchasers of the chattel or were in privity. Subsequently, liability was imposed in negligence upon the manufacturer of personalty in favor of the general consumer. (For a comprehensive historical review, see Prosser, Law of Torts (4th ed. 1971) § 96, pp. 641-644; 2 Harper & James, The Law of Torts (1956) § 12.2 and foll., p. 747 and foll.) Evolving social policies designed to protect the ultimate consumer soon prompted the extension of legal responsibility beyond negligence to express or implied warranty. Thus, in the area of food and drink a form of strict liability predicated upon warranty found wide acceptance. Warranty actions, however, contained their own inherent limitations requiring a precedent notice to the vendor of a breach of the warranty, and absolving him from loss if he had issued an adequate disclaimer.

General dissatisfaction continued with the conceptual limitations which traditional We, ourselves, were perhaps the first court to give the new principle judicial sanction. In Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc. (1963) 59 Cal.2d 57, 27 Cal.Rptr. 697, 377 P.2d 897, confronted with injury to an ultimate consumer caused by a defective power tool, we fastened strict liability on a manufacturer who placed on the market a defective product even though both privity and notice of breach of warranty were lacking. We rejected both contract and warranty theories, express or implied, as the basis for liability. Strict liability, we said, did not rest on a consensual foundation but, rather, on one created by law. The liability was created judicially because of the economic and social need for the protection of consumers in an increasingly complex and mechanized society, and because of the limitations in the negligence and warranty remedies. Our avowed purpose was "to insure that the costs of injuries resulting from defective products are borne by the manufacturer that put such products on the market rather than by the injured persons who are powerless to protect themselves." (Id., at p. 63, 27 Cal.Rptr. at p. 701, 377 P.2d at p. 901.) Subsequently, the Greenman principle was incorporated in section 402A of the Restatement Second of Torts, and adopted by a majority of American jurisdictions. (Prosser, supra, at pp. 657-658.)

[575 P.2d 1166] tort and contract doctrines placed upon the consumers and users of manufactured products, this at a time when mass production of an almost infinite variety of goods and products was responding to a myriad of ever-changing societal demands stimulated by wide-spread commercial advertising. From an historic combination...

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